How March Madness Is Being Pulled Off Amid COVID-19

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The giant bracket printed onto the exterior of the JW Marriott is the largest in history, according to its manufacturer, giving locals and tourists the chance to see their tournament picks go awry across 47,000 square feet.

One year into the coronavirus pandemic, the record-setting bracket and NCAA Tournament signage across downtown Indianapolis are the clearest signs that some normalcy has returned to this city, which is historically reliant on convention and event business as an economic driver.

Beginning March 1, per changes in local ordinances, bars could open at 50% and restaurants at 75% capacity, though eateries are still facing seating limitations based on social-distancing protocols. The six arenas hosting tournament games are allowed up to 25% capacity, though the final decision on attendance has been left up to the venue. 

"I think we feel comfortable and confident where we are with planning for fans," said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball. "Many of these venues have hosted some levels of fans recently, Bankers Life and Lucas Oil Stadium in particular, Hinkle Fieldhouse, as well. We’re confident they’ve had some experience welcoming guests and have those plans in place to keep everybody healthy and safe."

The easing of protocols come as the state has experienced a decline in COVID-19 cases and deaths, mirroring the national trend: Indiana saw 966 new cases Wednesday with a positive test rate of 2.3%, according to the state's Department of Health, and more than 890,000 residents are now fully vaccinated.

"I think they’ve really done their homework on this,” said Thomas Duszynski, the Director of Epidemiology Education at Indiana University’s Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health. “The risks have been minimized as much as they can, not only through the efforts of the city, county, and state but also because the disease prevalence is going down across the state of Indiana, just like across the country.”

The coronavirus still looms heavily over the NCAA Tournament, which opened Thursday. For the NCAA, the Indianapolis area, and the fans in attendance, the event unfolding over the next three weekends presents a dilemma: Do the benefits — the television revenue, influx of new business, and the chance to experience the tournament in person — outweigh the risks still posed by the pandemic?

"I don’t want to ruin a good time, but we do have to be responsible and as safe as we can," said Jeff Huron, the general manager at The District Tap, a restaurant near Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "I think the eyes of the world are upon us, in terms of downtown Indianapolis. I want to be a good example."

Bars, Restaurants Hoping for Record Week

For bars and restaurants in downtown Indianapolis, the tournament could provide a needed boost after a year that saw many establishments close to meet social-distancing rules and never reopen, while others struggled to stay afloat in anticipation of this month's return to larger indoor capacity.

"I think our business will feel like 2019 throughout this entire week, and 2019 was a record year for us," said Craig Huse, the CEO of Huse Culinary, which operates six restaurants in the Indianapolis area. "It might not feel like the traditional, intense push that we receive from a normal Final Four over six days’ time, but throughout twenty-some days it’s going to feel like business as usual from normal years. And that’s so refreshing for the restaurant business and groups that benefit from events like this."

After seeing a bump from last week's Big Ten tournament, the local service industry may be sparked by this year's unique format: Indianapolis and the surrounding area will host every game, putting the tournament in one location for the first time. 

"We want to keep the doors open," said Angela Smith, the chief financial officer at Slippery Noodle Inn, near Lucas Oil Stadium. "This is the oldest bar in Indiana. This is an institution here. We don’t want to close the doors. This place would be sorely missed. It would be heartbreaking."

Whether Indianapolis as a whole will see a noticeable economic boost from the tournament isn't clear. 

Games will draw increased business to individual restaurants and sports bars, especially those located near one of the playing venues. But the greater Indianapolis economy would see a noticeable impact only through a flood of out-of-town visitors — locals will deposit money into the city economy regardless, with or without the tournament.

"I can’t imagine that Indianapolis would, in a frank dollars-and-cents term, make very much from the tournament, period," said Allen Sanderson, a senior instructional professor in economics at the University of Chicago. "In this particularly unique situation, and even if somehow it gave Indianapolis some great morale boost or something like that, people can’t exercise that right very much because we just can’t travel."

NCAA Only Clear Winner

One obvious beneficiary from the tournament is the NCAA. According to the governing body's most recent audited financial statement, television partner CBS and Turner Broadcasting are paying $850 million to carry this year's tournament. 

"There is only one clear economic winner in all this, and ironically its home is in Indy," Sanderson said, meaning the NCAA, which is headquartered in the city.

And there's been no noticeable influx of tourists into Indianapolis, with the concerns inherent to traveling amid the pandemic joined by limitations on seating at the six venues. While Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the Elite Eight and Final Four, will seat upwards of 6,900 and 8,500 at the venue's two courts, no other venue will seat more than 3,800, and smaller arenas at Purdue University and Indiana University will allow a maximum of 1,350 and 500 fans, respectively.

This past Wednesday, streets in downtown Indianapolis saw only a smattering of fans wearing school gear, many maskless, while bars and restaurants with outdoor seating remained eerily quiet compared to the normal hubbub and electricity that comes with hosting one of the major events in sports.

While there is no quarantine requirement for visitors entering Indiana, those who did travel had to accept the indoor mask mandates in place throughout Indianapolis and the venues, as well as the risks involved with spending extended chunks of time inside arenas.

"I would’ve come regardless, it didn’t matter," said Jeff Beckwith, a Wichita State fan who made the 10-hour drive from Wichita, Kansas. "Any opportunity to come watch my team. It doesn’t matter what the situation is."

'I Don't Know What the Air Feels Like Outside Anymore'

Teams have largely been sequestered inside downtown hotels, attending online class, busing to practice, and remaining inside rooms and sanitized meeting areas since most arrived earlier this week. 

"The NCAA has tried to (do) their best under these circumstances. No matter what conditions they give us, we have to do our best to overcome," said Michigan center Hunter Dickinson, whose coach, Juwan Howard, has told the Wolverines to "embrace the suck."

"I don’t know what the air feels like outside anymore," Dickinson added.

First Four games at Purdue's Mackey Arena were played against the dull roar of piped-in crowd noise that groaned at missed shots, cheered at makes, and clapped at rebounds. Teams playing in First Four games were pushed back from the normal courtside setup and scattered among the first rows of seats.

"Hopefully next year we’ll have fans here and a packed environment to play in," said Mount Saint Mary's coach, Dan Engelstad.

The odd tournament setting belies a simple truth: As the pandemic continues to wind down, there's been no better time in the past year than the present to put on a major sporting event.

"I’d much rather do this when we don’t have a pandemic," Duszynski said. "That’s the best time to do it, obviously. But had we tried to do this in November, December, even in January, I don’t think we would’ve been able to pull it off with minimal risk, simply because the amount of disease in the population at the time was so high. All of these things have kind of come together at the right time for us to do this tournament."

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